Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Public Debt Limit, Part II

It would appear congressional Republicans and the Obama Administration are getting nowhere in their budget talks despite the looming August 2nd deadline. If the two sides cannot agree by then, the United States will be in default on its loans. Who knows what would happen next? Most economists agree nothing pretty.

In light of these difficulties, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell floats a third option: let's give the president the power to increase the public debt limit himself. Here's a video of McConnell discussing the plan:

The McConnell option nicely ties my last two posts together (see here and here). Congress finds it difficult to make politically hard choices when the public is attentive and opinions are intensely held. Congress also finds it difficult to make tough choices when it's easy to pin the blame on individual members. Raising the public debt limit is an example of an issue where the public is attentive, opinions are intensely held on the issue, and blame can be easily pinned on members by those opposed to the actions of those members. Hence, Congress--as Anthony King describes it--"runs scared" and either avoids the issue or finds away to punt the problem to someone else.

As the Crossroads GPS ad makes it clear, Republicans and vulnerable Democrats will be loathe to vote to increase the public debt limit. It is all to easy to craft a commercial and blame the member for increasing the nation's debt. Both Republicans and Democrats have attentive publics to worry about: The Republicans the Tea Party, and Democrats their base (those who receive many of the entitlements that would be cut in any deal). The end result is congressional leaders finding it difficult to cut a deal because members are not willing to put their careers on the line for one vote. To illustrate the point, when Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-PA) cast the deciding vote for President Clinton's budget (which raised taxes on the middle class, despite Clinton's campaign promise) in 1993, Republicans were heard chanting: "Nah, Nah, Nah. Nah, Nah, Nah. Hey, Hey, Goodbye." And Congresswoman Margolies-Mezvinsky--who represented a Republican district and promised to not raise taxes on the middle class--lost in the 1994 Republican tidal wave. Voting against constituents on issues that are highly visible is not something members of Congress are eager to do.

Into the stalemate comes the McConnell option. Let's give the power to the president. Very simply put, this eliminates the traceability chain for members now and into the future and provides a solution to the current crisis. When Congress couldn't close military bases, they created a commission. When Congress couldn't develop a timely budget, they gave the power to the president. And when Congress realized that parochial interests undermined the nation's interest in trade policy (see the Smoot Hawley Tariff), they gave the president increasing power to negotiate trade agreements and Fast Track Trade Authority.

Congress has a long history of being unable to overcome the collective action problem, and their solution has been to increasingly give power to the executive branch. Given the flood of special interest money into the campaign process and the rise of what Jonathan Rauch calls hyperpluralism--both of which make it more difficult to make those hard choices and to govern--I suspect the powers of the executive branch will continue to increase at the expense of legislative branch. And I think both the left and the right can agree that this is not a good thing and certainly not what the Founding Fathers intended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well put and undoubtably true. No one wants to make the first move for fear of re-election problems. It would be a catastrophic and terrible idea to give the executive branch more power than it already has. That power can be abused and hard to reverse as we have seen countless times with policies that have already stemmed from the Obama administration and other administrations before. Something needs to be done to reform our current political system...and fast! We need to start looking at what is at the root of the problem before we can even address the matter at hand.